The eight year old says, what did you do at work today?
And his Dad tells him about the fishbowl
discussion around the novel he’s teaching.
And the boy says, during writing time at school we make hamburgers.
He explains: Writing is like a hamburger.
It has to start and end with the same thing, you know, a bun.
And in the middle you have to have three things.
That’s where the beef is, you know, and you might put
two other things on there–like ketchup and pickles.
Those are the details.
Just to make sure Dad understands, he draws a picture
of a hamburger, but in the drawing he trades out
the ketchup for lettuce and keeps the pickles
and then he makes his Dad take notes, because
this is important. Dad writes on the top bun, “beginning,”
and on the bottom bun he writes, “end.”
In the margin the boy tells him to write that
the end “has to be the same as the beginning.”
Then Dad indicates with a marginal bracket that
the lettuce, the pickles, and the beef are the “details.”
And then the eight year old improvises on the spot
an essay about snow days:
Snow days are fun.
I built a snow castle.
I built 11 snow men and named them all Timmy.
I played a snow ball fight.
Snow days are fun.*
A perfect hamburger.
But Dad the American English teacher
is worried on a couple of fronts
by the lesson his son delivers,
adorable as it might be.
This, he understands, is the second
grade equivalent of the five paragraph
essay, that antiquated monster of a formula
that generations of teachers believed
(and many still believe) would teach
young people something about good writing.
And I’ve heard the argument
that it gives students a tool with which
to organize their jumbled thoughts
into something approximating coherence,
and then when it is mastered it can be jettisoned.
The problem is that so often it’s never jettisoned
and students continue to write in a box
despite the fact that they’ve never in their lives
read anything remotely like it by a professional
writer. And Dad wants his son to understand this early
but is surprised it’s already a thing in the second grade.
So maybe the next time they read one of his books at night,
they’ll look for the hamburger, won’t find it, and will
have to make some adjustments in their understanding
about what writers must do
and create a new, more useful metaphor.
*either the snow day essay is what the boy said and Dad wrote something different in his notes, or the notes represent the boy’s words and Dad edited the snow day essay. You decide.